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Spanish football accused of 'sportswashing' as Messi goes to Saudi Arabia

Barcelona and Real Madrid are set to make almost $8m each as Saudi Arabia reportedly spends $44m to host event
Activists protest outside Saudi embassy in Madrid, demanding release of jailed women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul (Amnesty/Twitter)

It's been a big few months for sports in Saudi Arabia. 

The kingdom has staged heavyweight boxing, women's wrestling, rally racing and even agreed to a 10-year deal to host a world snooker tournament.

Few stones have been left unturned - all that's left is a last minute bid to host the Winter Olympics.

This week, Saudi Arabia's ability to host major sporting events hit new heights: football icon Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates are in town. 

The Spanish Super Cup kicked off in the Saudi capital Jeddah on Wednesday, featuring Valencia, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. 

Barcelona's manager, Ernesto Valverde, admitted, rather candidly, that the tournament was only being held in Saudi Arabia for money.

"The bottom line is football has become a business and as a business it looks for income. That's the reason we are all here," Valverde said.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are set to make $7.8m each, as Saudi Arabia splashes out a reported $44m to host the five-day event. 

The entertainment sector, including sporting events and concerts, is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's "Vision 2030" strategy to make the Saudi economy less reliant on oil.

Still, critics see the events as a cynical attempt to improve the kingdom's international reputation amid growing concerns about its human rights record. 

Ahead of the Spanish Super Cup, Amnesty International activists protested outside the Saudi embassy in Madrid. The demonstrators held football scarves and wore T-shirts printed with the name Loujain al-Hathloul - a women's rights activist who has been imprisoned by Saudi authorities since May 2018. 

"Under Mohammed bin Salman, new high-profile Saudi sporting events have come thick and fast, even as the Crown Prince has presided over a sweeping human rights crackdown on women's rights activists, lawyers and the country's Shia minority," said Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK's head of campaigns.

"If a player like Lionel Messi were to say something about the outrageous jailing of the Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, for example, this would be an important reminder to the Saudi authorities that their appalling crackdown isn't going unnoticed."

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, another high-profile star involved in the Spanish Super Cup, met this week with Saudi Arabia's entertainment authority head Turki Al Sheikh.

Al Sheikh, who owns Spanish football team Almeria, jokingly headbutted Zidane - in reference to the infamous incident that led to his removal from the 2006 World Cup final. 

Although the arrival of Messi and Zidane is attracting a lot of attention among Saudi locals, organisers have sold few tickets to Spanish football fans. 

The final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid takes place at King Abdullah Sports City on Sunday.